Teaching Arabs, Writing Self, Memoirs of an Arab-American Woman
By Evelyn Shakir
Olive Branch Press. 2014. 170 pp.
In "Teaching Arabs, Writing Self, Memoirs of an Arab-American Woman," Evelyn Shakir, writer and seminal scholar of Arab American women, leaves a beautiful testimonial to her students, her heritage, and finally to herself after succumbing to breast cancer in 2010. As a literary scholar and the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Shakir playfully and perceptively loops the personal histories of her community with those whom she meets during her travels. As she shares her experiences in Bahrain, Lebanon and Damascus, the reader gets a whiff of history, politics and more human vignettes that reflect the diversity of each setting.
In her first section, "Childhood," Shakir humorously and lovingly recalls growing up in Massachusetts, and struggling with her identity as an outsider. Only later, after her father dies, does she gain a greater comprehension of the politics of invisibility, and “begin to understand what it felt like for my father to be an Arab in the United States, reminded in every editorial, on every channel, that on matters that mattered, he could have no voice.” Still, her family’s tale proves one of success, as they transfer the rhythms of Zahl life to the glory days of Revere Beach, where her uncle owns the Cyclone, the roller coaster that can draw over 100,000 summer visitors in the 30’s and 40’s.
The section, "Teaching Abroad," covers Shakir’s experiences with her many students and neighbors as she joins the surprisingly large legions of female expatriates. Like most foreign teachers in Lebanon, she is shocked at the degree to which she becomes ‘smitten’ with her students, as they share youthful and refreshing perspectives on their lives. While “Lebanon [is] a natural fit,” in Bahrain, the students do not see her as one of their own and she learns in Bahrain, that “faith and family [are] one, the sacred duty of parent to child… always what it [is] all about.” Ever open to learning from her students, Shakir muses “In Bahrain, I’d been expecting a mirror and found a window. It just took a while for me to know the difference.” Her heartfelt essay on Damascus with the reliable street vendors, small specialty shops without the specialty smugness, the charming taxi drivers who do not feel even a twinge of guilt for their minor overcharges, and the strangers who safely escort tourists and foreigners to destination rather than rattle off directions they probably couldn’t follow anyway, all becomes more dear today now that the city faces destruction.
Shakir also notes the financial consequences of the flux of Iraqi refugees into Syria and her time there coincides with the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon. This leads to some interesting conversations. She acknowledges the remorseless prison system under Assad, his son’s broken promises of internet freedom, and the university’s innovative pedagogy of the multiple choice exams.
In the third and briefest section, "Think Again," Shakir reflects on her writing and her cancer. As if affliction with breast cancer were not enough, she seeks temporary refuge with a girlfriend who is “like family.” However, after her nameless friend falls in love with a bisexual, that bond of friendship does not stop the woman from insensitively flaunting her newly purchased sexy bras, and ultimately commanding Shakir to leave. This particular story, like that of her uncle denouncing the author at lunch as a brat, leaves the reader wondering about the petty cruelties of American society, and the contrasting warmth Shakir found on the Arab streets. Readers who admired her short stories in "Remember Me to Lebanon, Stories of Women in America" (2007) or her social history, "Bint Arab, Arab and Arab American Women in the United States" (1997) will recognize Shakir’s warm sense of humor and her commitment to recording the social history of each particular moment through the interactions between one human being and another.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68.
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